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Preliminary Ruminations on Revising My Preseason BlogPoll Ballot

By now, you know the drill: BlogPoll voters were called upon to submit their preseason top 25 ballots and explain them, which I did.

After the initial poll was released, the BlogPollsters were asked to state their cases for the most overrated and underrated teams, which I also did.

Incorrectly guessing which teams will be good before the season even starts is a sacred trust.

We now have been called upon to reconsider our original rankings in light of the points other webloggers have made and, although I already have offered some thoughts on how a BlogPoll ballot ought to be cast, I take seriously the admonition to take my ballot seriously.

No, my vote will not determine which candidate will hold high public office, or even which football team will play for the national championship, but, because it is worth doing, it is worth doing well. Accordingly, I now turn to the thoughts that have been expressed by my coevals regarding the propriety of the preseason poll as presently constituted.

In assessing who was overrated and who was underrated, BCSBusters took a dim view of treating the historic elite differently from successful programs with less storied pedigrees. In his rankings, the members of what might be called college football's nouveau riche all are rated higher than they are in the BlogPoll, as BCSBusters ranks West Virginia second, Louisville fourth, Virginia Tech seventh, California 10th, Texas Christian 13th, Rutgers 14th, Arizona State 17th, Oregon State 23rd, and Boise State 25th.

For my part, I have always given the so-called "mid-majors" (particularly Boise State) their due, I have taken my fair share of shots at the golden child of the college football establishment (Notre Dame), and, contrary to the popular perception of S.E.C. fans, I respect other conferences. If you won't take my word for it, ask a few Pac-10 fans and Big Ten fans.

Rutgers alumna Kristin Davis was pleased to learn that Dawg Sports deemed the Scarlet Knights a team on the rise.

BCSBusters is a thoughtful critic of the sport's existing power structure and he generally thinks and writes with nuance even while holding forth with the zeal of an advocate, which he is. Nevertheless, while I concede his general point that the College Football Association movement had a profound impact upon the course of the sport, I would respectfully suggest that his argument goes off the tracks a bit with the hyperbole inherent in this passage he penned:

In closing, my point as [sic.] been made for I really don't need to evaluate or compare the remaining ten picks of both polls. This is exactly why college football desperately needs to move forward because in reality this is a civil rights issue. I don't see a ton of differene [sic.] between the civil rights issues of the sixties and what is occurring today in college football. Instead of discriminating against the color one's skin [sic.] or ethnic background, we now discriminate against the conference origins of one's home, of which - in either case - a team or person can do nothing about. The fact that both of these atrocities originated in the south speaks for itself, further damaging is the conference bashing which occur's [sic.] every season (a.k.a. - Les Miles and Company).

First of all, I don't know who the "Company" is, but Les Miles had no ties to the South before 2005, so don't try hanging that albatross around our necks.

Secondly, to call the denial of a B.C.S. bowl berth to, say, a Cal team that proved itself unworthy by losing to Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl an "atrocit[y]" comparable to the denial of educational, employment, and housing opportunities or of voting rights guaranteed by the 15th Amendment is ludicrous and offensive, as is the snide assumption that "[t]he fact that both . . . originated in the south speaks for itself."

I originated in the South, too, and I am no more fond of the regional bigotry explicit in the preceding statement than the author of that sentiment is of the racial bigotry which he erroneously attributes to my entire region.

For the record, Brown v. Board of Education originated as a case brought to desegregate the schools in Topeka, Kansas. Court-ordered busing to achieve racial balance caused rioting in Massachusetts, while Charlotte, N.C., made a point of achieving integration peacefully. Segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace won the 1972 Democratic presidential preference primary in Michigan. Racial prejudice is not the exclusive province of any single set of people.

See? There are even problems with race in space.

More to the point, it is simply false to state that "we now discriminate against the conference origins of one's home, of which . . . a team . . . can do nothing about." The thought underlying that expression is as garbled as the syntax with which it was expressed. In identifying college football's haves and have nots, BCSBusters names names:

Think about that for a few moments the next time we have to swallow the fact that a two-three and even four loss elite CFA power is granted enterance [sic.] into the BCS events, while an undefeated or one loss team such as California, Oregon, TCU, Boise State, Louisville or Kansas State is eliminated from the opportunity.

Can it seriously be suggested that bias based upon league affiliation is the culprit here? The Ducks and the Golden Bears are the victims of "discriminat[ion] against the conference origins of one's home," even though they are members of the same league that includes Southern California, a consensus preseason No. 1 in the A.P. poll, the coaches' poll, the BlogPoll, and the BCSBusters poll?

It is equally difficult to take the call to have pity on poor Kansas State too seriously, since the Wildcats were one of those three-loss teams who made it into a B.C.S. bowl game by beating Oklahoma in the 2003 Big 12 championship game. K-State promptly lost the Fiesta Bowl to Ohio State.

Folks don't disrespect Kansas State because the Wildcats aren't a traditional power. Folks disrespect Kansas State because Bill Snyder scheduled like a little girl.

Most importantly, though, the notion that a team "can do nothing about" its conference affiliation---the idea that league membership is so immutable and ingrained as to be comparable to a person's skin tone or ethnic origin---is obvious and abject nonsense. Consider the following statements of fact:

  • Colorado, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State comprise the Big 8
  • Arkansas, Baylor, Houston, Rice, Southern Methodist, Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Christian, and Texas Tech form the Southwest Conference
  • Air Force, Brigham Young, Colorado State, Utah, and Wyoming compete in the Western Athletic Conference
  • Fresno State, San Jose State, and U.N.L.V. belong to the Big West
  • Boston College, Florida State, Louisville, Miami (Florida), Penn State, Pitt, Rutgers, South Carolina, Southern Miss, Syracuse, Virginia Tech, and West Virginia all are independents
  • Boise State plays football in Division I-AA
All of the foregoing assertions were true in 1990. None remains true today. Next weekend, Texas Christian will take the field as a member of its fourth different conference in a 13-season span.

Things change. Continents drift. Louisville is the defending Orange Bowl champion. With my apologies for ending a sentence with a preposition, ob-la-di, ob-la-da, la-la, la-la, life goes on.

By the way, that was a reference to the Beatles song, not this sappy T.V. show.

Quite frankly, despite my supposedly suspect Southern origins, I cannot fairly be accused of disrespecting the teams BCSBusters presumes to defend. In my final BlogPoll ballot last season, I ranked Boise State second, Louisville third, Wisconsin ninth, West Virginia 10th, Rutgers 11th, California 14th, Brigham Young 17th, Virginia Tech 19th, Oregon State 22nd, and Texas Christian 25th. This particular Southern BlogPoll voter put 10 of BCSBusters's most disrespected teams in his final top 25. Nine of those teams ascended in my final tally and the last held steady.

This did not happen because I have a soft spot for teams from particular conferences. An informal assessment I performed last season---which, admittedly, examined only a single instance---found that local biases appear to matter somewhat in some cases and not at all in others. When accused of overrating S.E.C. teams, I demonstrated that this simply was not the case.

Rather, my ballot featured some of the downtrodden teams whose cause BCSBusters champions because I believe in "resume ranking," which Sunday Morning Quarterback defined as follows:

A method that attempts to rank based strictly on the measurable: if each team had a resume for this season and this season only, and its name at the top was blacked out, how would the voter rank those resumes? Takes into account only games played to date this season - these are folks who always complain about polls that come out and distort reality before October. SMQ's preferred method all year, and seemingly the default method for most end-of-season rankings.

Strengths: Consistency. Attempts to use "evidence" rather than perception or past history to eliminate abstraction, and treats every team equally and entirely as a team - doesn't give any boosts or demerits to teams based on the recent past or personnel. For example, Tennessee's opening win over Cal was deemed the most impressive of the week, and the Vols were number one in SMQ's poll in Week Two. If Boise State defeats a I-AA team in its opener by a two touchdowns more than Georgia defeats a I-AA team, as was the case the first week of this season, the "Resume" voter would rank Boise higher in the second week even if he believed Georgia was the "better" team, because there's no way to measure UGA's perceived superiority - it's just an abstract notion based on past teams, not the current reality. When Michigan State was an impressive 3-0, the "Power Poll" voter might have said "I don't believe in the Spartans, they always fall apart," and stayed away from MSU, but the "Resume" voter, even if he believed in an eminent collapse, would criticize and reward based solely on those three games, and deal with the meltdown only when it came (which, of course, it did in the fourth game). All that's considered is what's happened on the field to date, which is all that can be measured, and which is all anyone will have to go on in the final ranking in January, when it counts.

Drawbacks: "Attempts" is the very key word above. Even if a voter is using a statistical method (see below), subjectivity and abstraction creep in when considering how much credit or punishment is deserved for a particular win, especially early in the season, or, on the same lines, how to account statistically for strength of schedule. It's OK that the same win or loss on a resume changes in value as the season goes along according to changes in perception about a particular opponent, but that's still dreaded perception, which is what Peter was getting at in his second question. Early this year, in trying to come up with a way to account for strength of schedule on various resumes, SMQ started making a list that assigned a basically arbitrary value to each team as part of a group of similarly-valued teams, until it dawned on him to ask, "If this is what I actually think of these teams, why don't I just use this list?"

This is why I have pledged to drop all 0-1 teams from my BlogPoll ballot, even if I think the losers of the Cal-Tennessee, Clemson-Florida State, and Georgia-Oklahoma State games are better than the teams which take their places in the top 25, because, with only the evidence of one game upon which to base a decision, I have to conclude that 1-0 objectively is better than 0-1.

It's like Nuke said . . . winning is better than losing.

This is why SMQ questions whether South Florida really is more likely than Cincinnati to turn its newfound status as a B.C.S. conference team in a talent-rich state into a permanent place in the college football firmament. It is why Paul Westerdawg questions the legitimacy even of an undefeated Hawaii squad's claim on a Sugar Bowl berth . . . not because he's bigoted against the W.A.C., but because the Warriors' schedule likely offers no real indication of how good they are, much as T.C.U.'s slate did last year.

It's not that we doubt that particular teams are good; it's that we need to see them prove it against top-tier competition. Utah didn't really do that in 2004, when, although the Utes were a solid team, they faced a suspect schedule, up to and including their bowl game. West Virginia and Boise State, by contrast, proved something substantial in their respective major bowl wins over Georgia and Oklahoma which had been lacking in those teams' previous (and often lopsided) losses to Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl and to Florida in the Sugar Bowl (in the case of the Mountaineers) or to Arkansas and to Georgia (in the case of the Broncos). Similar questions about quality of opposition continue to taint, for example, Georgia Tech's undefeated 1990 season, so it isn't as though this phenomenon is confined exclusively to newcomers to major player status.

Where, then, does this leave us? In the preseason, as the proprietor of Corn Nation puts it, "I'm guessing. You're guessing, we're all guessing. Personally, I'm relying on tea leaves and chicken bones, and I doubt that I'm off more than the next guy down the street." Accordingly, his preseason approach looks like this:

My methodology? Look at what the team did last year, excluding minor bowl games. UCLA getting destroyed by Florida State is discounted as an anomaly. Look at returning starters and what key positions are missing. I'm guessing that I give more credit to turnover on the offensive and defensive lines than most do because those positions are key to me. I give more credit to traditional 'power' programs than lesser knowns because reality dictates that traditional powers have more depth at every position than everyone else - therefore it's easier for them to replace starters. I don't give much consideration to who might beat who if they went head to head because at this point, we don't know anything about that (with the possible exception that USC could beat everyone else in the nation).

That seems perfectly fair, which is why, in the absence of current information, I am willing to repose a degree of faith in the informed intuitions of SMQ, who doesn't miss much.

What does this mean for the second draft of my BlogPoll ballot where the rubber meets the road? Stay tuned. . . .

Go 'Dawgs!